Next Ranger Up: What Pitchers Make Up The Cavalry?
Five starting pitchers are never enough to get through a Major League season. Nowadays, it’s expected to have Major League ready options in slots six through nine.
Let’s throw this back to September 17th, 2014. The Texas Rangers had begun the season with high expectations, having made it past 162 games for each of the previous four years. But at this point in the season there had been a record-setting number of visits to the Disabled List and the bottom five of the lineup read JP Arencibia, Robinson Chirinos, Jake Smolinski, Adam Rosales, and Daniel Robertson. The team sat with a 59-92 record, 35.5 games behind the first place Angels.
It was a miserable season Rangers fans want to wipe from memory. But let’s imagine the year repeated itself. Let’s say every starter on the 2017 team is wiped out in a freak sinkhole incident during Spring Training. Who would the Joe Saunders and Jerome Williams be this year? What players make up the depth chart that will inevitably be used? I’ll take a position by position look at the players expected not to make the Opening Day roster who would be next in line should someone at their position go down.
For this article, I’ll discuss solely the starting pitching depth with hitters and bullpen arms coming at a later date.
The Next Rangers Up
Mike Hauschild – the Rangers Rule 5 pick in December, Hauschild is extremely likely to be the Rangers first choice if one of the projected starters is injured in Spring Training. Whether he is the best option or not is a toss-up, but he would be the only pitcher on this list the team would lose were he to not make the roster.
The Ohio native is a soon-to-be 27 year old righty has yet to make his big league debut. Throughout his minor league career and particularly over the past two seasons, Hauschild has posted solid, if unspectacular numbers through an ability to avoid both walks and home runs. In 2016, spent entirely with Triple-A Fresno, the former 33rd round pick struck out 119 and walked only 40 over 139.2 innings while putting up a 3.22 ERA. As shown via MLBfarm.com below, he was able to keep the ball on the ground to the tune of a 55% ground-ball rate. Granted, without an in-person look at Hauschild, the numbers suggest a profile capable of being a serviceable back of the rotation arm.
Nick Martinez: One of the biggest beneficiaries of that knee/elbow/wrist/you name it massacre of 2014 was Martinez. Going into that spring, he had yet to reach Triple-A and was pegged by many scouts as a career bullpen arm. Well, one rotation implosion later and he was in the Opening Day rotation and held his own over 140.1 MLB innings. Martinez would then post remarkably similar numbers in 125 frames in 2015 before struggling a season ago.
With a fairly significant sample size at this point in his career, Martinez has a 4.44 mark which is likely boosted by some luck given the right-hander’s middling walk and strikeout rates. At 26 years old, it’s unlikely he will take a leap to a new level, but with an option remaining, he can provide value even without doing so. Preferably the Fordham alum won’t see long stretches in Arlington, but the Rangers could certainly do worse for a spot starter.
Yohander Mendez: Here is the big name with the most potential on the list. Mendez ranks as either the Rangers #1 or #2 prospect by every major publication and even had a Major League cup of coffee a season ago. Come August, he likely resides at the top of this list. The general consensus on the southpaw is a likely role as a #4 starter with a ceiling as a #3, an evaluation I agree with based on my views in Frisco. Right now, however, Mendez is wiry 21 year old with only 34.1 innings and four starts above the Double-A level. Even as polished as he is for his age, that’s going to mean the big league call-up date doesn’t start with April.
In 2016, the native Venezuelan tossed a career high 114 innings ranging across four levels. He was able to succeed across the minors, posting ERAs of 2.45 (High-A), 3.09 (Double-A), and 0.57 (Triple-A). Mendez showed an ability to control his fastball, with spurts of plus command, and utilized his change-up for swings and misses while developing his slider as a usable tertiary offering. If there is a worry, it’s the decrease in punch-outs upon arrival to Round Rock, a problem many change-up specialists have struggled with as they reach the upper levels. In Mendez’ case, it can be easily explained away by small sample size, an increased workload, his age compared to the level, and so on. It is merely something to keep an eye on as he enters 2017.
Chi Chi Gonzalez: The rare case in which 2014 contained the glory days Texas longs to return, Alex Gonzalez has undergone a very rough two years since. The days of the pitcher with the plus slider to accompany his two-seam/cutter/sinker fastball mix seem to be gone, with this spring marking the two year anniversary of his slider regression.
Over the past two years, the Oral Roberts product has seen 77.1 innings of big league work and even started his MLB career by permitting only three runs across four starts. Unfortunately, those performances turned out to be smoke and mirrors. Even as he experienced that immediate success, Gonzalez was walking more than he struck out, a theme which has continued. In his time with the Rangers, the right-hander has sent 37 batters back to the dugout while issuing 41 a free pass to first. Below is the entire list of pitchers with a worse K/BB ratio and at least 50 innings over the past two seasons, courtesy of Fangraphs.
The silver lining here is Gonzalez will be 25 and just entering his fourth full season of professional baseball when the season starts, so there’s still a possibility for further development. Barring a major uptick in both stuff and control, though, something has likely gone wrong if he is used for more than spot start duty in 2017.
Tyler Wagner: A waiver claim early in the off-season, Wagner is likely to stick in the organization if he is able to make it to March given his one option remaining. Protecting him from the cut-line between now and that time is Brady Dragmire. More than one addition to the 40-man and Texas likely has a decision between Wagner, Tanner Scheppers, and Dario Alvarez as to who goes.
Working under the assumption Wagner stays, he fits a roughly similar profile to Gonzalez in that he is a mid-20s, former well-regarded prospect (although to a lesser extent) who has had a rough go since his 2015 big league debut. Now, that rough patch is only a very small sample size of actual pitching – six big league appearances with a 4.94 ERA and five Triple-A outings with a 3.04 mark. In those admittedly very few outings, he has failed to record a good number of strikeouts and has walked too many. Wagner missed nearly all of the 2016 season with an injury the team seemingly never disclosed.
The 6’3″ righty has shown to be about as extreme a ground-ball artist as there is when healthy. In 202.2 total innings since the start of 2015, Wagner has a 60.53% ground-ball rate and has a near 4:1 GB:FB ratio. The numbers likely aren’t sustainable at these levels, but anywhere close and it’s possible the former 4th round selection has big league success without much bat-missing ability.
There are two main questions with Wagner: does he stay on the roster through the winter? And is he healthy? If the answer to both is yes, he’s likely to get a big league look in 2017. Wagner is more of a long-shot if both are up in the air.
Above is the entire Plan B rotation which we can only hope also falls down the sinkhole. This would force Daniels to go to whatever plan contains trading for Pitcher Mitch Moreland. Barring that, these are the names to expect in Arlington should an arm go down with a more mundane injury.